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Keywords:

  • dry season;
  • El Niño/La Niña;
  • ENSO;
  • monsoon;
  • Northern Australia;
  • rainfall gradient;
  • tropical savannas;
  • wet season

Abstract

Climatological research in the tropics of northern Australia has focused particularly on the Australian summer monsoon. However, the timing of many ecologically important processes is determined not by the monsoon but by extra-monsoonal rainfall events. These events produce a temporal pattern of wet and dry spells that is at least as important ecologically as the amount of rain. We defined the rainy season as that period when the probability of 10-day dry spells was less than 0.5, and the wet season as that period within the rainy season when the probability of dry spells was less than 0.1. We applied these criteria to seven stations along a strong north–south rainfall gradient spanning more than 12° of latitude in tropical north Australia. The duration of the rainy and wet seasons in northern Australia decreases with increasing latitude. The timing and duration of these seasons were also affected by the El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO). The relative contribution of temporally isolated rainfall events to both the duration of the rainy season and the amount of rainfall increases with latitude. The geographic variation in these seasons corresponds to many patterns occurring in natural ecosystems. We argue that understanding the extra-monsoon rainfall events is critical to understanding how climate variation affects natural ecosystems. Copyright © 2001 Royal Meteorological Society